A Balancing Act

By Thomas O. Davenport
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Fundamentally, managers must work with employees to craft fulfilling jobs that contribute to an organization’s mission and goals. A soundly constructed job is like a tripod of three well-balanced elements that are stable and predictable in the face of change and turmoil:

    Resources. Job-related resources incorporate a spectrum of tangible and intangible elements, including financial and nonfinancial rewards, autonomy in how people go about their work, and opportunity to learn and achieve mastery. Access to resources builds employee engagement.

    Performance support. This facet encompasses elements like up-to-date technology, information, cross-functional teamwork, and freedom from political obstacles and other workplace hindrances that reduce effectiveness.

    Challenge. Dimensions include urgency, task complexity, range of responsibility and magnitude of workload.

Like a photographer with a tripod, a manager must balance these components. Managers should tilt toward providing the greatest level of resources. Similarly, performance support falls into the “more-is-better” category. Providing performance support means ensuring the existence of factors that enhance productivity, such as teamwork, and reducing energy-draining elements such as unclear reporting relationships or uncertainty about strategic direction.

Managing challenge, however, requires exacting judgment. To a point, job challenges make work important and energizing. Diverse tasks, a sense of urgency and tight deadlines are exciting and invigorating. Beyond a point, though, the same factors—too many disparate tasks, too much pressure to perform and impossible deadlines—can produce damaging workplace stress and reduce employees’ well-being. Managers must ensure that jobs present the right amount of challenge.

Getting off-kilter in the challenge category can destabilize employees and their performance. During the recent recession, for example, fewer than half the respondents to Towers Watson workplace surveys expressed confidence that they could keep to schedules and deadlines without sacrificing product and service quality. The proportion of employees who said they could balance work and personal responsibilities and manage workplace stress fell at various points during the hard times.

In difficult periods, when external challenges become significant, managers must take action to balance the three factors. Manage the workplace context rather than managing the people, and create circumstances for autonomy by:

  • Providing resources and information.
  • Building employee competence.
  • Agreeing on required results and timing.
  • Letting people control how they do their work.
  • Making sure resources and performance support don’t come with strings.

Be available, but don’t micromanage. Towers Watson research shows that all employees, and especially top performers, want frequent contact with their managers—daily or several times a day in some cases. But this isn’t an invitation to micromanage. Instead, the message for managers is: Be available when employees need information, coaching and advice—the critical elements of performance support. Otherwise, stay offstage.

Custom Tailor

People attach individualistic values to resources, performance support and job challenges. Managers must respond to one employee’s need for on-the-job learning, another’s desire to lead a cross-functional team and yet a third employee’s ability to juggle many complicated tasks.

Employees want workplace experiences that feel crafted for them. It’s the manager’s job to deliver that experience. By ensuring a balance among resources, performance support and challenges, managers contribute to employees’ ability to perform consistently in spite of the trauma that often accompanies a difficult economic environment. Doing this well ensures that engagement withstands the onslaught of turmoil and uncertainty.

The author is senior practitioner in Towers Watson’s Talent Management and Organizational Alignment practice. He is the co-author of Manager Redefined: The Competitive Advantage in the Middle of Your Organization (Jossey-Bass, 2010).

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